I'm sure you've seen the Friends episode where this word came about all too frequently:
Followed by this response:
All laughing aside, a pivot is an essential word in our English language. As defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (verb form, that is): Turn on or as if on a pivot. The noun form of this word is: The central point, pin, or shaft on which a mechanism turns or oscillates. There seems to be a recurring theme with these definitions: the word "turn." If we look up the meaning of that word, the dictionary defines the verb form as thus: Move in a circular direction wholly or partly around an axis or point. Or: Move (something), so it is in a different position concerning its surroundings or its previous position. The noun form is defined this way: An act of moving something in a circular direction around an axis or point. Or: A change of direction when moving. Changing directions. Move (something) so that it is in a different position. Hmm. It makes you think about this word differently in the grand scheme. Allow me to explain. Throughout the entirety of this pandemic, we all were pivoting, or turning, away from things, ideas, and people who no longer served our purpose. But we were also shifting, or bending, towards new ideas, items, and people who may bring us much-needed clarity, direction, guidance, support, peace of mind, and understanding when we initially couldn't see it pre-pandemic. The clearest case was pivoting to more time at home with our loved ones to keep everyone safe. It meant missing out on some important celebrations or events like birthdays, marriages, funerals, and more (or even driven crazy by the constant togetherness, but I digress). However, What if pivoting meant more in our everyday lives than just turning toward our loved ones or turning away from the pandemic through keeping others safe? What if pivoting was related to our jobs, especially in the industries we've worked in for decades? What if pivoting connects to our mental health, primarily due to certain behaviors we were taught and are now questioning to be true? What if pivoting was related to our relationships, especially if it meant redefining what we want in our significant other? Even if it means navigating through sexuality and gender preferences. What if pivoting was related to society, especially if it meant putting aside our differences and taking the time to appreciate and acknowledge our humanity, no matter how different each of us maybe? What if pivoting meant all of those things? And why is it that hard to pivot to new ideas, people, and things? I've got a few ideas, and I hope from here on out, you might take the chance to pivot to some new opportunities in your life.
There are plenty of reasons why people pivot after doing a career, lifestyle, and even frame of mind after a long time. For many of us, it involves taking care of our physical, mental, and emotional health after a field slowly transforms from bad to worse in terms of how much stress and strain the tasks become. Or even how much the world surrounding this field becomes too much for us to handle, and we return home burned out and even more anxious about returning to work the next day. Or how all the hard work and dedication get underappreciated, despite the determination and passion for changing the world. It could be a culmination of all of these things. Take a look at some of these stories of theatre professionals in the arts industry not returning to work after in-person theatre started up again. (NOTE: These stories are from the Los Angeles Times, and Ashley Lee writes the article. These stories' credits go to the newspaper organization and the writer. You can find the complete article here.) For numerous artists and arts workers, the collective pause since 2020 spurred an unprecedented reflection on what they weren't getting from their pre-pandemic jobs and what precarious elements they had long tolerated for the love of the art form. Some are leaving the door open to return to theater someday. Others say they'll never go back. Because Melinda Sewak long believed that science and the arts were mutually exclusive pursuits, she dropped out of medical school to perform all over Nashville's regional scene. But just before the pandemic, a difficult pregnancy pushed her to reconsider her career choices.
"I was preparing for a reading when I got our diagnosis and had to cancel the performance," says Sewak, whose daughter has a rare spinal cord condition. "I realized that, for me, theater can't be forever. Because what will I do in moments like this, when I just can't be onstage?"
The 31-year-old joined the first data analytics cohort at Pivot Technology School, a boot camp designed by and for people of color to transition them into tech industries. She now works as a business analytics manager for Doximity, an online networking service for medical professionals, and still acts from her sound booth at home.
"Returning to in-person theater isn't an option for me because my daughter is immunocompromised, so voiceover roles and audiobook narration allow me to continue to tell stories safely," she says. Plus, "I'm learning how to pursue both tech and acting at the same time, which is what I've always wanted to do but didn't know I could." The Philadelphia-based actor Michaela Shuchman didn't anticipate a career change upon nabbing a role in Delaware Shakespeare's community tour, performing in nontraditional settings like correctional institutions, homeless shelters and psychiatric facilities. Soon after, she began teaching weekly classes at a juvenile detention center. “We’d play acting games and read Shakespeare, and I’d ask them to be vulnerable in a place that wasn’t supporting them and, in fact, was punishing them,” she says. “I believe in the rehabilitative power of theater, but I started thinking: How can I have a bigger impact on the young people who don’t have the same access to it?”
When the pandemic wiped her slate of acting gigs, the 28-year-old enrolled in law school at New York University, focusing on juvenile justice and representing public school students at their suspension hearings. "I try to get their charges dropped and get them back in school by telling their stories and communicating with an audience effectively," she explains.
"I still have the same end goal as when I was an actor on a stage; I'm still using all of those same skills," she adds. "Right now, I'm so proud of the work I'm doing and I'm excited to see where it'll lead me." Jackie Ortiz juggled the marketing campaigns of an L.A. regional theater by managing social media accounts, sending email blasts and creating engaging videos. She didn’t realize how much she was doing until the pandemic’s collective pause and how much she had tolerated until months later, when the American theater experienced a racial reckoning.
“I had conflicting feelings about working there, like theaters wanted a pat on the back for their casting decisions when the board, designers and administrative staff would all still look homogenous,” says the Chicago-bred Ortiz. “Then I felt like I was thrust into approving the organization’s statement [on anti-racism] not only because of my role, but mostly because I was a brown woman and they wanted a stamp of approval from a person of color. It felt very performative, and I couldn’t keep overworking myself for a company that doesn’t align with my values.”
The 31-year-old now works as a community manager for the software company Doist. Resigning from regional theater “felt like a breakup, but I realized that my job position doesn’t define my relationship to the arts, and leaving the industry doesn’t make me any less passionate about it. I’ll be a patron forever, more intentional about which institutions my money supports.” As a steady swing and understudy, Bennett Leeds filled in for other actors with little notice — or consideration. “I requested an extra rehearsal before I went on, which I thought was a reasonable accommodation when flying into a Broadway tour,” he says. “The general manager told me, ‘If you’re not ready — and it sounds like you’re not — I’ll find someone else who’s cool with being shot out of the cannon.’ Some might call that ‘paying your dues,’ but I took it as a threat of retaliation.” The 25-year-old Leeds, bred in Connecticut, now works with members of a Jewish community center in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I get those person-to-person interactions that acting provided me,” he says. “Only now I work with supervisors who give me regular feedback and who I feel are invested in me as a person, which is something I never felt in theater.”
Leeds’ swivel from the stage may not be permanent. “I’m more than happy to wait until there’s an industry-wide change in the way arts employers treat their employees,” he says. “For a lot of people who come out of college programs, work outside the arts gets turned into this ‘other’ and that can put artists in certain situations. It turns out those desk jobs I avoided can be pretty fulfilling.” Margaret Baughman regularly worked numerous directing and stage management gigs to afford pre-pandemic New York City. “In the arts, you take the gig that doesn’t pay well so you can get the next one that maybe pays better,” they say. “But what happens is, one production isn’t enough to make rent, and theaters don’t always have the right cash flow to pay on time. So you end up taking on a bunch of freelance projects — on top of eight shows a week.”
Baughman had been following COVID in the news and, in case of a widespread shutdown, contacted a recruiter about a temporary remote position. Now 28, they’ve since moved back to Chicago and work as a program manager at TikTok — a full-time job with consistent paychecks, affordable health insurance and a semblance of work-life balance. Even the occasional 60-hour workweeks are less of a lift than their years in theater.
“Before the pandemic, I was so, so close to getting those Broadway credits,” they say. “But I was in parallel tracks with peers with significant financial privilege, who had so much more time to network and do workshops that didn’t pay. I decided it wasn’t worth it anymore, and now, I’m finally getting paid my worth.” As the associate literary director of Washington D.C.'s Studio Theatre for nine years, Lauren Halvorsen helped plan each season by evaluating hundreds of scripts. She also dramaturged plays, maintained playwright relationships, wrote grants, drafted marketing copy, moderated talkbacks and coached the box office through potential audience questions. “This work is crucial for the longevity and health of an institution,” she says. “But because our labor is often invisible, our expertise is often misunderstood and not as valued as other specialties. Our positions just do not exist anymore; they’ve either been completely eliminated or turned into low-paying internships.”
After getting laid off early into the pandemic, the 36-year-old now handles accounting for an engineering company, “an entry-level job that pays more than what I made 15 years into my career.” The role leaves time for freelance teaching and dramaturgy, often working with the institutions she critiques in her well-read theater industry newsletter.
Though thankful for her current balance, Halvorsen wishes full-time arts positions paid sustainable wages. “Theater companies value buildings, donors and audiences, but not their arts workers,” she says. “If these institutions say they care about art, they have to care about the people who make that art over the people they sell it to.” (Lee, Los Angeles Times, 2022) There is a pattern here in these stories. There's a cry for stability in the fields these individuals are passionate about in their lives. There's an outrage for being seen only for their talent and considering their mental, physical, or emotional health. There's not enough transparency from those at the top on how to help others and move forward, especially on racial equity. There's not enough help from each individual, leading to frequent burnout and stress over doing the tasks of three people instead of being responsible for one job. There's underappreciation for each individual, sometimes with their credit taken by someone else. It's funny. We've had this whole pandemic to truly see that certain habits, patterns, and ideologies never worked to begin with or even harmed others to the point of turnover constantly occurring in job industries across the board. However, the ideologies, patterns, and habits are still in place due to the need to recover and maintain the status quo. And it's not just the performing arts industry at its most vulnerable right now. I've heard stories of teachers walking away after decades of educating the next generation due to the lack of appreciation from the school systems in their neighborhoods. Even the parents only see teachers as babysitters instead of people who help the children learn, grow, and thrive in the world with their education. (Parents also play a big part in this, mind you.) Retail workers leave in droves after years of belittlement from customers, insufficient support, and high pay from upper management. And don't get me started on journalism. I know of someone who went to one of the best schools in the nation for journalism and thrived for ten years as a lead anchor on the local NBC network, only to announce that she's left the news industry for good. The constant barrage of bad news, graphic images, and industry stress will do that to you, as you can see. To all of those in upper management (and even higher than that), no matter what industry you are in: LISTEN UP! I understand you don't want this company, organization, or conglomeration to crumble due to the pandemic. But if people are leaving the positions, you are trying to fill in droves due to low pay, underappreciation, no flexibility, or no consideration for physical, mental, and emotional health (or a combination of all of the above), there's something wrong with the way you're running things. You had an entire pandemic to sit at home, contemplate, and reach out to employees to listen to their true feelings and how much things need changing. You even had all this time to self-reflect and see how your greed and need to succeed are harming others. And yet, you are unmovable to implement the changes other countries around the world are light years ahead of you just because you are so greedy and - dare I say it? - stupid. The "common folk" had to adapt in so many ways to protect each other, and yet you consider yourselves above simply listening to others' concerns and anxieties. All you cared about when businesses started opening again was your comfort and wealth, even if it meant disregarding others' needs. Let me say this slowly: This. Must. Stop. NOW. What are you so afraid of when you hear "pivot"? Yes, you will lose things, people, and sponsors, but think about what you gain if you take the chance to listen and care about lower-level employees. More people may come to work for your organization if you offer flexible hours, higher pay, livable wages, and medical coverage. Or even paid maternity leave lasting longer than three weeks to a month, no texts or emails during an employee's time off, and a safe workplace without fear of being LGBTQ+, black, POC, or even a woman. And it all starts with you making the pivot. It doesn't mean you lose the vision. It's adapting to the times. It's taking time to show kindness and understanding to others. It's becoming the leader you're destined to become. It's letting go of greed and selfishness. It's looking inside yourself to see and reconcile with past lousy behavior in hopes of changing and inspiring others. It's changing your mindset and allowing extraordinary transformation to occur within and around you. But it's not just those in power who need to pivot. Perhaps we all need to pivot as well. (We've all had to pivot multiple times these past few years, even more than that pre-pandemic. But once again, these words I write are my reflections and observations of the world I experience daily. You are welcome to disagree with me on anything I've said in this blog or in previous blogs. But I won't tolerate disrespectful language, offensive speech, or anything derogatory that harms myself or others. I will block you if it comes to that point.)
It's not easy for any of us to pivot to something new. It's scary, quite frankly. But if something we've been doing for a long time isn't working or we're just not getting anywhere (even if we're content with our lot in life), there's no choice but to pivot and take things in a new direction. We can't stay in one place forever, no matter how content we are with what we have. Pivoting causes us to lose things we believe are valuable, but what if they aren't helpful? What if the things we treasure, like financial security, good education with multiple degrees, a lovely home in a quiet neighborhood, friends in high places, fame, power, and more, are illusions? What if we need to pivot towards people, ideologies, and qualities that are truly valuable in life, like a small but strong network of friends, kindness, courage, vision, determination, creativity, humility, strength, compassion, imagination, understanding, patience, ingenuity, and love? And all we have to do is look within ourselves to begin the pivoting process. It's taking an intense look at what we've done so far in our lives and admitting our mistakes and shortcomings to ourselves and others (whether or not they accept our apology is on them, not us). And here's the hard part: We start removing those habits daily, one step at a time, and pivoting towards the people we want to become and aspire to be. It's admitting our faults and errors that is the hardest, but we must do it if we hope to pivot to show the world who we are capable of becoming. Maybe pivoting away from greed, selfishness, narrow-mindedness, anger, fear, and confusion from within ourselves is the best place to start. Pivoting toward the unknown with faith, hope, and love does wonders for our spirits. It teaches us how we are strong enough to withstand anything that comes our way. And more importantly, it shows us that trusting in our gifts and acknowledging our worth (and not accepting anything less) can inspire others to pivot towards their dreams as well. Let go of what's holding you back, even if generations of family members pass it down. Trust and believe in your worth as an individual. March bravely and forward into the unknown with no intention of giving up or returning to your past. And I promise you, your pivot to your next phase in life will bring you joy and contentment. It's not just starting over but continuing with new dreams, hopes, wishes, and beliefs while maintaining the core plans of your life. Don't be afraid of what you will lose. But instead, consider what will happen if you stand still. Keep. On. Going. You have one person in your corner rooting for you as you pivot to your next adventure. And that's me. And you won't have to hear me say "shut up, shut up, SHUT UP" each time you pivot.